Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jacqueline Winspear & Rhys Bowen at Velma Teague Library

(photo: Rhys Bowen & Jacqueline Winspear)

Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, was our guest for Authors @ The Teague on Tuesday, Feb. 24. We were lucky that Rhys Bowen picked her up at the airport, so the author of the Molly Murphy, Lady Georgiana (Georgie), and Evan Evans mysteries was able to speak to our audience as well.

Jacqueline started the program by saying since she writes mysteries, she always has to decide what she should say, and not say, so she doesn't reveal too much. She said maybe it's obvious that the reader will encounter madness in her new book,
Among the Mad.

So, in order to provide the background to her book, she turned to Stephen King's book, On Writing, to find out what to say. He said when inspiration comes to an author, it comes from two ideas coming together.

So, Winspear's life provided the inspiration for the background of Among the Mad. She said there were three main sparks. The first came at the age of sixteen, when she changed schools to take her A levels, specialized exams in England. While she attended that school, from 16 to 18, the students were required to do community service on Wednesday afternoon. She chose the social services group. On Wednesdays, she would visit what, at that time, was called the Mental Hospital. At the time it was built in the 1800s, it was known as a lunatic asylum. It's what we would now refer to as a Psychiatric Care Facility. The walls were cement, with glass on top, to discourage people from going over the top. When Jacqueline visited, the gates were open, but at one time they were kept closed to keep patients in, and others out. The building was typical of its time, a Gothic, grey granite building, with a bell tower, and bars on the windows. There was no doubt it was once a lunatic asylum.

Jacqueline's job was to sit and offer companionship. She would do puzzles with the patients, read to them or listen to them read, write letters, and just provide companionship. She started to wonder, even then, where the dividing line was that got some people in, and kept others out. She isn't sure where the idea came from. But, there was one man, in his forties or fifties, who was very intelligent. She had eye surgery then, and he would question her as to whether or not they did this procedure or that test. So she mentioned to a nurse that he seemed so smart. He was a renowned physician, and a murderer. He had been found guilty of justifiable homicide because he killed someone who had broken in, but he went mad after the killing.

There were also three women in their eighties. Since this was about 1971, they had been born in the late 1800s. And, they always seemed just fine to Jacqueline. When she mentioned that to a nurse, she was told they were fine, but they all had children out of wedlock, and in the early twentieth century, those women were institutionalized, and then it reached the point where they could not live outside an institution.

The next event that sparked Winspear's imagination occurred at the end of the 70s or the early 80s. She had a job in London, where Maisie Dobbs' office is now located, that allowed her flexibility to come and go. She used to take lunch in Regent Square where there was a bandstand, and she could listen to the band play music. But, those were years of on-going domestic terrorism. And, one day the IRA set off bombs in eight places in London. One bomb went off under that Regent Square bandstand, killing band members, families, and children. Jacqueline Winspear was on the way to the park, and heard it. She remembers hearing the bomb, and it didn't sound like you think it does. It sounded like a sharp, loud crack. Then there was silence afterward. For a teeny split second, it felt as if humanity was never going to breathe again. There was that silence, and then the sirens. It was a time when people had to be vigilant for themselves, and take responsibility for their own security if you were working in London.

Winspear's third spark was the memories of her grandfather. In 1916, he was in the Battle of the Somme. He came back shell-shocked, and he had been gassed. For the rest of his life, he had a sensitivity to sound. He was emotionally vulnerable. It was a hallmark of young men who were shell-shocked that their mind went from the sound; the percussion of battle was too much.

Jacqueline's grandfather was registered as wounded because he was actually wounded, so he received a pension as an old soldier. By 1915, there were cases of shell-shocked soldiers who couldn't get treatment from neurologists or doctors fast enough. The government was registering the wounded soldiers for pensions, but there were so many that they would not register the mentally wounded as wounded if they were only shell-shocked. Instead, they were sent home to families who often couldn't deal with them, and ended up putting them in asylums. Jacqueline has great memories of her grandfather.

Winspear said when she writes mysteries, Maisie Dobbs is always the mystery. She puts her in situations, and she has to react and change. She has love and lost, gone to war, and has a career.

She went on to read an excerpt from Among the Mad. In the scene, Maisie and her assistant, Billy Beale, had just witnessed a man take his own life. Then, the shopkeepers set out chairs, and made tea for people, because a good cup of tea got the British through everything. After reading, she introduced author Rhys Bowen.

Rhys Bowen said she was really there to act as chauffeur for Jacqueline. But, the books by the two authors parallel each other. March 17 is release date for the eighth Molly Murphy mystery, In a Gilded Cage. Molly is a private investigator at the beginning of the 20th century who came from Ireland to New York. The previous
Molly Murphy mystery is coming out in March in paperback. Tell Me, Pretty Maiden ends in an insane asylum. A girl had been committed against her will, and Molly wants to get her out. It was a time in which men would sometimes commit their wives, if they were interested in another woman. And the concept of psychiatry didn't exist. To treat insanity, they often introduced highly infectious diseases to patients. Sometimes typhoid would induce a fever, and its affect would change the brain. And, sometimes the patient didn't recover.

Bowen said Molly needed a story that was quite as heavy. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the role of women was changing. In a Gilded Cage begins with a suffragists march of Vassar graduates. They suffered from verbal abuse, and had mud thrown at them. Bowen said she traces this to a group of Vassar graduates. Her spark was a visit to an eighty-year-old woman who had a book about Vassar graduates and their travels. These women had great hopes they could do anything.

Those that married and shrank to fit their husband's vision of their role lived In a Gilded Cage. In contrast there is a young woman working for a pharmacist, who hopes to be a pharmacist some day. The book discusses the difference in expectations, and what happens.

This role is very important to Molly's life. Molly is considering marrying her longtime boyfriend, Daniel Sullivan. But his expectations are that she'll give up her work. Is that what she wants?

When the two authors took questions, I mentioned that the atmosphere in London during that time, with a bad economy, soldiers returning, people out of work, reminded me of our current situation. Jacqueline Winspear quoted James Joyce as saying, "History is a nightmare from which I'm trying to awake." She said photographers were not allowed to take pictures of the caskets brought home from Iraq. She said England also tried to keep from the people the human cost of war. The economic depression mirrored the collective depression. The people celebrated the end of the war, and then a few days later, they realized their boys were never coming home. The men of entire factories, streets and towns, such as Acton, were wiped out in the First World War. Eighty to ninety percent of some towns were killed at the Somme, many from Pals Regiments.

In 1914, lots of men joined up because it was patriotic. By 1915, when they realized what war was about, they thought maybe they wouldn't join up. So, the British government encouraged Pals Regiments. Join up with your pals from school, or factory, or street, or whole towns. However, when entire neighborhoods were wiped out, the country couldn't hide the losses. Now, the government no longer allows too many people from one region to be in the same unit. The First World War left whole gaping holes in communities. That war was a collective ache for the country.

Rhys Bowen went on to talk about the large loss of life because the generals fought by sending men over the top, and lost 5000 men to gain a short distance. Just as in Iraq, the background was missing. The generals looked at the map, and never saw the the actual terrain. They sent in the cavalry, and there was fifteen feet of mud. Men and horses drowned. And, when messages were sent saying they can't advance because of the mud, the generals couldn't understand. They made the mistake of planning a war based on the most recent one England fought, with cavalry charges. They should have looked at the American Civil War to see the rise of the machine gun.

Jacqueline Winspear answered a question, saying she was from England, and came to California in her early 30s, planning to take a vacation of three or four months. She had a brother there. But, there was a company there that had broken off from the firm she worked for, and they offered her a job. So, she stayed in California.

It was the perfect ending to answer a question about the name Maisie Dobbs. Winspear said the idea for the books came to her when she was driving along. She just knew her character's name was Maisie Dobbs. She's an everywoman. She's a woman of her generation, the first generation to go to war in modern times.

Jacqueline Winspear's website is

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear. Henry Holt and Company, ©2009. ISBN 9780805082166 (hardcover), 320p.

Rhys Bowen's website is

Rhys Bowen blogs at

Tell Me, Pretty Woman by Rhys Bowen. St. Martin's Press, 2009, ISBN 9780312943752 (paperback), 336p.

In a Gilded Cage by Rhys Bowen. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2009. ISBN 9780312385347 (hardcover), 288p.


Molly said...

I love hearing the background and inspiration for stories. While I am relatively new to mysteries, and so therefore have not previously heard of these authors, I am very much looking forward to reading their work.

Lesa said...

Molly, This is the second time I've heard Jacqueline Winspear, and her program was entirely different last year. She does a wonderful job in telling about the inspiration for her books, without spoiling the book for readers.

Anonymous said...

Good job, Lesa. Loved the write up and am sending it on to a couple of friends from the library who are big fans of both Rhys and Jacqueline. I have begun each of their series and truly enjoyed the books I've read of theirs. I keep spreading the word of your wonderful blog. People need to be informed about a lot of things and you do a great job!


Lesa said...

Thank you, Kay! I appreciate you spreading the word! And, Jacqueline posted on her blog yesterday that Among the Mad will be #9 on Sunday's NYT Bestseller List! This is the best so far of the Maisie Dobbs books. And, of course, with Rhys Bowen nominated for an Agatha, it was a stellar day.